Monticello Road is a community arts project in Charlottesville, Virginia. Through photography and a series of public events and conversations, we explore how an art can be an essential, integral and everyday part of a healthy community.

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Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Biophilic Art at the Bridge

Natalie Jeremijenko's "Greenlights" filter the air and produce oxygen while providing a pleasant indirect light. They're a great example of biophilic design, which recognizes human affinity for natural forms and processes. Excellent video about Natalie's work.

This past weekend I had the pleasure to meet NYC-based artist and environmental activist Natalie Jeremijenko at the Bridge PAI. Her primary ambition is to reorient our relationship to health, as signaled by the emergency red cross rotated on its side.

In her view, the bacteriological paradigm of healthcare, in which individual bodies are treated in isolation is not only a dead-end but counterproductive. The culprits for the worst public health problems are environmental, so the path toward well-being must be radically decentralized and aimed at fostering more bio-friendly conditions. And it must happen with urgency.

She is similarly troubled by a crisis of agency in which massive global problems that impact daily life (such as global warming) seem beyond our individual means yet are unaddressed by large-scale institutions that are theoretically meant to serve the public interest. Her Environmental Health Clinic at NYU addresses both sides of the dilemma by reframing the issues and engineering ground-level responses.They have a strong DIY feel and are meant to get us thinking about what we can do/make ourselves.

Jeremijenko’s “Farmacy AgBags,” which are kits for greening buildings with Tyvek bags that hang from walls, windowsills or parapets and that grow plants with edible flowers, highly nutritious food that filters the air, nourishes pollinators in crisis and not compete with upstate farmers or greengrocers (who do not sell this food item). Interestingly, she makes no mention of these vertical gardens’ aesthetic appeal but it seems obvious or even primary.

The Bridge exhibition also has a few samples from her descriptively titled “emergency taxidermy” project. While the specific act of urban taxidermy is hardly novel it is an entrĂ©e into the other branch of Jeremijenko’s oeuvre, where she is doing really important and exciting work to highlight the mutualistic relationships between humans and urban animals.

She makes communication devices for birds, a visual floating Light-Brite display that tracks the passage of fish (and takes cell phone calls), a moth cinema, a device for taking a tadpole for a walk…all highlight the fact that we can and must work with our non-human neighbors who share our space and our future.

That’s a part of a growing field of research on human-nature affiliation (see biophila) and the effort to erase the false dichotomy between the two. Jeremijenko correctly perceives that addressing this gets to the heart of the environmental crisis and that the only possible exit from the man-nature dialectic will be a synthesis.

I use that precise term very specifically because there is much synthetic about Jermijenko’s work, from its refreshing disregard for genre silos to its preponderant and arguably excessive employ of plastic material. I would not want, for example, to eat something grown from her biochar soil amender (the carbonic—and heavy-metal—leavings of a household waste incarnation process), even though I bet I already do much worse without knowing it. Awareness is troublesome that way.

It’s important however not to lose track of her message in superficialities or armchair ethics. Beyond Jeremijenko’s lab coat, ubiquitous "x" branding and catchy made-up terminology is an artist who is tackling the most existentially pressing issue of our time. From a political/activist perspective, it’s the only one that matters: how can we alter this destructive course our society is taking at ever-increasing speed?

She’s getting right to work and offering propositions—which can be clever, or seem obvious or may even do more harm than good. That’s a risk one takes by ever getting out of bed. But she's trying lots of things and her core message is undeniable: we as individuals can and must apply our creativity to address these vexing questions; we cannot wait. Discrete and small innovations will add up to a new paradigm and lead to more progress and we must get get started.

Her work accomplishes what art intends: change how you view the world and inspire new ideas.

Watch Jeremijenko's Ted Talk for a very good introduction to her work. Her exhibition remains on view through March. The Bridge PAI is located at 209 Monticello Road.

Edit: There is a larger (and better) companion exhibition at Ruffin Hall.

As part of my professional development, I’m taking a class called Cities + Nature at the University of Virginia. It examines the importance of interaction with Nature and ways for planners to make it part of the everyday experience. This post is part of a series on the subject.

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